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Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook
Matt Damon, James Cromwell, Daniel Studi
Writing Credits:
John Fusco

Leader. Hero. Legend.
Box Office:
Budget $80 million.
Opening weekend $23.213 million on 3317 screens.
Domestic gross $73.12 million.
Rated G.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Surround
English, Spanish, French

Runtime: 83 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 11/19/2002

• Audio Commentary with Producer Mireille Soria and Directors Lorna Cook and Kelly Asbury
• “Learn to Draw Spirit” Featurette
• “The Animation of Spirit” Featurette
• “The Music of Spirit” Featurette
• Storyboards with Optional Directors’ Commentary
• Production Notes
• “From DreamWorks Animation” Promo
• Cast and Crew Biographies
• DreamWorks Kids Features
• DVD-ROM Materials

Score soundtrack

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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron - Widescreen (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 20, 2002)

When does hand-drawn animation cease to be hand-drawn animation? The answer may seem self-evident, but with each passing year, it becomes tougher to define. For most of the history of animation, the work was clearly done by hand. Computers lacked the sophistication to make any difference until relatively recently. Films like 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective and 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under pioneered computer work in cel films, but they remained predominantly hand-drawn.

2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron truly blurs then lines between CG and cel product. The movie blends the two formats to an unprecedented degree, as it combines computer-created settings and participants with other hand-drawn characters. The results seem somewhat choppy and distracting at times, but Spirit generally offers an interesting experience.

Set in western America roughly circa the 1880s, we see the birth of stallion Spirit and watch him grow. Eventually he becomes the leader of the Cimarron herd, but when humans invade their valley, matters go downhill. Spirit feels curious so he checks out the men, but he inadvertently leads them back to the clan. His actions then allow the others to escape, but the humans capture him and induct him into the Army.

Then we meet a tough Colonel (James Cromwell) who tries to break Spirit. The horse intimidates the other men, but he doesn’t affect the Colonel, who orders him tied to a post without food or water for three days to make him crack. Eventually, it looks like this works, but we see that Spirit won’t be knocked down quite so easily.

The military also recently captured a native named Little Creek (Daniel Studi), and he gets the same tied-to-a-pole treatment accorded Spirit. When the horse tries to split, Creek gets away too, and the pair flee. They make it back to his camp, where Spirit meets a sexy mare named Rain. Little Creek ties the two together to train Spirit, which doesn’t break him, but it does lead him to warm up to camp life.

This causes complications, as Spirit can’t quite decide which life to accept. Should he stay with his love or should he return to his old camp? He clearly misses the latter, but he also cares for the former. The remainder of the flick deals with these issues as well as the continued problems caused by the encroaching military.

I wouldn’t call Spirit a classic animated film, but it does offer an unusual and generally engaging experience. It starts slowly but gradually becomes more involving and evocative. It certainly doesn’t seem like many other animated flicks you’ll see, mainly because the animals never overtly speak. Narration from Matt Damon offers Spirit’s perspective on the events, but when the animals vocalize, they do so via realistic whinnies and snorts. That means none of the usual production numbers or wisecracking sidekicks.

Spirit definitely doesn’t opt for total realism, however. They may not speak, but Spirit and his companions all come across like cartoon characters. Actually, that statement seems a little strong, as the animals don’t cross over into total artificiality. The movie makes them more expressive and thoughtful than we’d see from real critters, but it simply omits the speech one might normally expect in this kind of film.

I like the fact that Spirit varies the usual processes, though I admit I wish it’d gone farther. Damon’s narration doesn’t appear constantly, and it seems generally unobtrusive. I think the flick would have been more intriguing without any voiceover, but I understand why the filmmakers would didn’t want to break too far from tradition. The narration bridges the two concepts and works reasonably well.

Spirit also uses the songs of Bryan Adams to “speak” for the lead character, and that method works less well. Adams provides the usual bombast heard in most of his work, and the tunes seem out of place in this flick. From his power ballads to the cheesy rocker that appears during the horse-breaking sequence, the numbers fit poorly with the action and cause distractions.

I also think the integration of 2D and 3D animation fares awkwardly at times. Some of the material blends together nicely, but a lot of the time, the differences appear too obvious. This particularly affects some of the sets, which simply don’t match the cel animation well. For example, an otherwise very exciting river rescue sequence loses points due to the weak combination of elements.

Despite these various complaints, however, I rather enjoyed Spirit. The lack of speaking animals and strongly anthropomorphized characters creates something unusual and intriguing, and those elements give Spirit a personality it might otherwise lack. Although Spirit doesn’t show human tendencies, the movie generates a surprising emotional punch. Spirit bonds with characters both human and animal realistically, and these interactions create a compelling tone that makes various threats and dangers pack a nice impact.

In addition, the film offers some crisp action at times. When I first heard of Spirit, I honestly thought it looked like little more than an attempt to lure little girls into movie theaters. I figured it’d provide a soft and prissy flick, but that isn’t the case. Instead, some of the scenes show very lively action sequences that help make the film more engaging for all audiences.

Ultimately, I think Spirit creates a generally involving and enjoyable piece of work. The movie displays too many weaknesses to approach the level of classic, but it does more right than wrong. It forms an engaging set of characters and appears well executed as a whole.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio B / Bonus B

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron appears in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. DVDs of animated films usually present excellent visuals, and Spirit didn't vary from that trend.

Sharpness consistently looked distinct and accurate. Virtually no examples of softness appeared during this crisp and well-defined image. Even in wide shots, the movie remained tight and distinct. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no issues, and I also noticed no signs of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, the movie showed no examples of any.

Spirit featured a green and natural landscape that came across nicely on this DVD. The movie demonstrated wonderfully lush and vibrant colors consistently throughout the film. The hues seemed vivid and appropriately saturated, with no issues of any sort related to them. Black levels also came across as deep and rich, while shadow detail appeared logically dense but not overly thick. Overall, the image of Spirit presented a clear and lively picture.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Spirit also offered a fairly satisfying piece of work. For the most part, the mix remained oriented toward the front channels. Music showed nice breadth and stereo imaging, and effects demonstrated good movement across the spectrum. Elements appeared appropriately located in that domain, and they blended together well. As for the surrounds, they came to life nicely on occasion. The scene in which the wranglers come after Spirit and the army attack on the Indian camp seemed very lively and involving, as the segment used all five channels efficiently and engagingly. In addition, when the train rolled down the hill, it also showed solid material from all around the spectrum.

Audio quality appeared positive as a whole though not as good as it could have been. Dialogue came across as natural and warm, and I noticed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects sounded crisp and distinct. They showed no distortion and they packed a nice punch when necessary, though I thought the bass response could have been somewhat stronger. That latter element became a greater concern when I listened to the movie’s music. Hans Zimmer’s score generally demonstrated good dynamic range, but Bryan Adams’ songs seemed somewhat thin and lackluster. They lacked adequate bass response and were somewhat tinny. Overall, the audio for Spirit lacked great range and naturalism much of the time, but the track still worked pretty well as a whole.

For the DVD release of Spirit, we find a mix of supplements. These start with an audio commentary from producer Mireille Soria and directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, all of whom were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. I found it tough to make it through this commentary. While the participants seemed enthusiastic about the film, they failed to provide much real information about the project. They occasionally discussed topics such as the flick’s genesis and the challenges created by the mix of 2D and 3D animation, but the vast majority of the track simply praised the film. Oh my, did they tell us how much they loved Spirit! I expect some of this sort of material, but the commentary for Spirit went way over the top in that regard. Over and over the participants told us how great various components were and how much they loved different elements. Frankly, the trio came across as awfully full of themselves, and this became a genuine turn-off. A good commentary leads me to like a movie more than I did before I listened to it, but this track really started to sour me on the flick after a while.

In the “very cool touch” category, the audio commentary includes subtitles so that hard of hearing folks can also check out the information. In the “above and beyond the call of duty cool” category, the DVD also provides translated French and Spanish subtitles for the commentary! Prior DreamWorks DVDs offered commentary subtitles, but I think this may be the first to give us additional languages other than English as well. Way to go, DreamWorks! (Note that most of the other supplements omit English text but they provide Spanish and French subtitles.)

Learn to Draw Spirit with James Baxter lasts 13 minutes and 47 seconds and provides exactly what it describes. We meet Spirit’s chief animator as he goes through the four steps required to depict our star horse. Though mainly aimed at the kiddies, Baxter offers a surprisingly detailed look at the work required, and this program gives us a pretty nice art lesson.

Mostly a fairly promotional piece, The Animation of Spirit offers a quick look at those elements. The seven-minute program combines movie clips, behind the scenes materials, and interviews. We hear from producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation head of technology Ed Leonard, director Kelly Asbury, digital supervisor Doug Cooper, 3D effects supervisor Wendy Rogers, 2D CGI supervisor Jane Gotts, senior supervising animator James Baxter, and horse consultant Dr. Deb Bennett. Much of the time, we’re simply told how ground-breaking the animation of Spirit is, but we do find a few useful bits, such as a sequence that depicts how some scenes combine cel and computer art.

Another featurette appears next with The Music of Spirit. This nine-minute and 41-second piece follows the same format seen in “Animation”. We get comments from composer Hans Zimmer, directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, singer/songwriter Bryan Adams, producers Mireille Soria and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and actor Matt Damon. The program includes a lot of the usual notes about how great everything is, but we see some good glimpses of the recording process and also learn a few nice bits about the work. In particular, Zimmer offers compelling remarks about the challenges he experienced.

Within the Storyboards section, we see filmed renditions of four scenes. These last between two minutes, 55 seconds and six minutes, five seconds for a total of 16 minutes, 51 seconds of footage. These offer a pretty good look at the planning process for some of the film’s action sequences.

We can watch these with or without commentary from the directors. They seem a little more informative here than during the main movie. We still hear too much simple praise for the work, but we also get some decent information about the filmmaking process and the way storyboards assist them.

For some ads, check out From DreamWorks Animation. This piece promotes Shrek, Chicken Run, Antz, The Road to El Dorado, The Prince of Egypt, and Joseph: King of Dreams. Strangely, the DVD doesn’t offer the trailer for Spirit itself.

Next we find some text components. Production Notes gives us some nice information about the film. It discusses topics such as the integration of 2-D and 3-D, the challenges of animating horses, and how they tried to represent the old western landscape. The notes provide a decent look at a few important subjects.

Cast and Filmmakers offers the standard biographies. As usual, DreamWorks pour on the listings. We get entries for voice actors Matt Damon, James Cromwell, and Daniel Studi plus director Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, producers Mireille Soria and Jeffrey Katzenberg, screenwriter John Fusco, composer Hans Zimmer, songwriter Bryan Adams, production designer Kathy Altieri, editor Nick Fletcher, Spirit supervising animator James Baxter, Colonel supervising animator Fabio Lignini, Rain supervising animator William Salazar, Little Creek supervising animator Pres Romanillos, and horse consultants Dr. Deb Bennett and Dr. Stuart Sumida. The bios themselves don’t go much beyond the level of annotated filmography, but we sure do get a lot of them!

>From the “Special Features” menu you’ll see an icon that says “DWK”. This stands for “DreamWorks Kids”, and if you click it, you’ll go to a section with materials meant for the young ‘uns. Some of these just refer to DVD-ROM bits I’ll discuss later, but a few work on stand-alone players. Favorite Scenes simply links to eight segments of the movie; it provides nothing more than an alternative form of chapter search. “Learn to Draw Spirit with James Baxter” just repeats the featurette we saw previously.

Set Top Games features two contests. “Cimarron Slam” resembles an arcade shooter that presents mechanical targets; you need to choose which to shoot and which to avoid. It provides awkward fun that’s limited due to the clunkiness of the DVD interface; it moves too slowly to really work well. “Mustang Derby” pits Spirit against three other horses in a race. It requires you to mash the crud out of the right arrow on your remote to rush Spirit to victory. Simply hitting the button a lot wins the race, so this game seems pretty limp (and it probably badly reduced the life of my batteries).

Most discs’ DVD-ROM features provide little fun or creativity. However, Spirit offers some unusual via its main DVD-ROM component, “Make a Movie”. This allows you to create your own Spirit mini-film via the elements included or through the import of your own pieces. It seems like a cool extra that should allow for lots of fun and creativity.

More frustrating is “Frontier Find”. This compels you to locate 13 “golden apples” strewn throughout the disc’s activities. Do so and you’ll get a “special prize”. Though not a difficult task, the “special prize” isn’t worth the effort.

“Horse Sense” educates kids about different horse breeds and then tests that new knowledge. The “Spirit Calendar Maker” does what it says, as it lets you use 12 different images to create your own chart for 2002, 2003, or 2004. Since the DVD hit shelves in the middle of November 2002, isn’t it a little late for that year? Nonetheless, this offers a better than usual compilation for this genre.

In “Cimarron Cinema”, you make a movie poster and an invitation for the premiere of the flick you created in “Make a Movie”. “Rain’s Coloring Fun” presents six different potential images. You then can print the picture and color it by hand or tint it via some computerized methods.

For some games, we go to “Hillside Glide” and “Goal!!!” The former slaloms Spirit down a hill and forces you to move him to avoid obstacles, while the latter puts him in a soccer goal scoring contest. Neither seem entertaining.

“Tall As a Horse” and “Teepee Tees” offer more printables. The former lets you create a chart to compare your height and growth to Spirit, while the latter allows you to make any of four different T-shirt patterns.

“Nickname Maker” has you enter your first name and middle initial. It then kicks out your Lakota name. (Mine’s “Sa”, but oddly, if I used a lower-case letter for my initial, it created a different name!) Two more games end the DVD-ROM domain. “Canyon Concentration” forces you to match character icons to then receive a pictorial reward, while “Wild West Word Wrangle” provides a variant on “Hangman” in which you guess the letters to form a word. Neither seems special, but they offer moderate fun for what they are.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron tried to offer something different for an animated film, and it occasionally succeeded. The movie felt derivative in some ways, but it nonetheless gave us a generally entertaining and compelling piece of work. The DVD provided crisp and clean visuals with fairly good audio and an inconsistent but occasionally compelling package of extras. Spirit would make for satisfying family viewing.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.7076 Stars Number of Votes: 65
6 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.